Michelle Buteau Is Unapologetically Ready to Serve You a “Joy Watch” with Her Netflix Series Survival of the ThickestPhoto by Vanessa Clifton/Netflix Comedy Features Michelle Buteau
In 2015, comedian Michelle Buteau was in the throes of balancing her ascending career in stand-up, acting more in various television comedies like Enlisted, and starting IVF with her husband of five years. She admits she was going through a lot personally and professionally which in turn ignited the germ of a book idea where she would document her life in hilarious but frank essays. Getting them from her brain to the page ended up taking five years, but Survival of the Thickest (2020) was the result.
“I don’t know why I thought I could bring home twins and write a book,” she says of her equally long journey to bring her twins into the world via IVF and surrogacy which happened in parallel. “I missed so many deadlines.”
Said book is now the basis for her Netflix scripted comedy, Survival of the Thickest (dropping July 13), in which she stars, co-writes, and co-showruns a series loosely based on a specific chapter of her life, pre-marriage and kids. Buteau plays Mavis Beaumont, a hard-working assistant stylist in New York City whose life turns upside-down when she catches Jacque (Taylor Selé), her fashion photographer boyfriend of five years, cheating on her with a skinny model. Suddenly, Mavis has to navigate an immediate life-reboot in her late 30s, leaning on her best friends, Marley (Tasha Smith) and Khalil (Tone Bell), to find her way out of the drama.
To explain how Survival of the Thickest evolved from tome to television, Buteau got on a call with Paste where she explained it all while juggling toddlers, pets, and mystery coconuts.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste Magazine: As you were writing Survival of the Thickest, the book, did it ever cross your mind that it could become a television show?
Michelle Buteau: No, this was for the people that needed it. If it’s five people or 5000, it is what it is. I have a real “this is where I leave you” vibe with my work, so I never thought, “Oooh, this is gonna be a show.” I was like, “Get this shit done so you can get it off your chest.” Truly.
And what I didn’t realize too was I’m so glad I did go through a moment where I was like, “Don’t tell yourself no before people tell you no.” I just really had to remind myself that all the time because I felt almost like an imposter. [The small voice of her son interrupts.] One second. [To her son: Go down the stairs and get some candy.] Wait, that is a coconut. How did a coconut end up in my office? I don’t want to know. I’m sorry…
Paste: It’s Monday, and life happens. No problem.
Buteau: No, so when I wrote it, so many people were interested right away. I didn’t know that having IP was so valuable. I started taking meetings and I would hear people’s ideas of what they thought the show should be from the book. None of them really got me excited. But when I met with Netflix — and obviously I have a great working relationship with them — they said something that I love. They said: “This is your story. You figure out what you want to tell. This is a great platform where you do have a little bit more license to be a little edgy if you want. It’s really up to you.” And I was like, “I love that. Thank you.” Because I don’t want to ever feel like I’m putting…I mean, people say “a circle in the square,” but I say it’s a size 18 in a 16. Don’t do it! There’s no room to breathe. Don’t do it!
Paste: How long did it take you to percolate around the idea of “What’s worth me telling? What part of my life is worth focusing on for this series?”
Buteau: I had a handful of themes. Body positivity. Sex positivity. Inclusion. Being cheated on in your 30s. There were just so many things that I was like, I have to get to. But to be honest, I was overwhelmed because I had never created television before. I’ve just shown up and just elevated people’s material. LOL. You can quote a bitch on that!
So, I was overwhelmed. There’s so many things to choose from. Then my showrunner — Danielle Sanchez-Witzel is amazing — she was like, “No, this is a good problem that we have so many things to pull from. So let’s figure out how to build a world that is inspired by your world.” And so between that and the writers’ room, it just fell all into place in a way that I couldn’t have imagined because I didn’t know what breaking a story was. Or, because something happens in Episode 2, how does that affect them in Episode 8? What?
Paste: As a comedian working with plenty of funny women writers, did you pull from your circle? And did you want writers who lived similar life situations?
Buteau: I think it was just a vibe as you read people’s samples. I can [write] Mavis, obviously. But I need someone for Marley, or someone for Peppermint. It really wasn’t about, “Can you make Michelle’s words better,” because I got this. It’s building out this world. Again, diverse writers’ room — period — because it’s a diverse show. Going into all these meetings with writers, it was great because I could see everyone’s journey and where they wanted to go. Even working with someone like Danielle, when we were both on the same page, it was like, “Okay, this is what it is!” We were saying yes to the same dress. When it was good, it was great, you know.
Then, the added extra level of casting the person.They just breathe a soul into these words that you couldn’t ever imagine. And, of course, I’m lucky to have a lot of really talented comedic boss bitches, so Liza Treyger, Tone Bell, Tasha Smith, and Nicole Byer. Not to sound like I’m tooting my own horn — but beep, beep — it was very nice to see people just enjoy their craft. This was the vibe, you guys. It’s a party. We only make each other better. I love that everybody was on top of their game. I think just treating people well really boosts morale. It was all about diversity in front of the camera, but also behind. It was amazing, because most of the heads of the department were female. Everybody was taken care of.
Paste: Did you look to any prior shows as your benchmark in making this an authentic series about being a woman now, going through these life moments?
Buteau: I just really wanted to keep it as authentic as possible to what my life is. It’s just got to be real. Like, how would a person actually say that? People consume so much stuff, and if we’re asking people to sit down and watch my version of New York…Look I love Friends, but nobody had a Puerto Rican friend? Not one Puerto Rican friend? You live in Manhattan? No. And Just Like That…we got gay friends! Bitch, please. And I love Emily in Paris. It does something for my brain where it’s just like I’m eating mac and cheese, saying, “Oh my God, this is nice. Should I be doing this?” I wanted something a bit more authentic to me. And for the people that I hang with in New York. It’s over the top. It’s grounded. It’s all the things because that’s what my world is. I want this shit to be trending. Let’s go!
Paste: The show is also very real about expressing a real woman’s perspective, which is refreshing.
Buteau: I’ve learned to love my body, inside and out, quietly. It has been such a crazy journey to just even say I like myself without apologizing. No shade to the people in my family. I know, we all go through generational shit. But, this is why I was so glad to write the book, to have this place to put these feelings because there’s so many of us — especially within the show and my community — we’re never going to live up to some unrealistic, patriarchal standard of being attractive. So, why would we? For me, I say in the show and I always say in real life, it’s not me that needs to catch up to the world. It’s the world that needs to catch up to us. Whoever needs to see this show, they’re gonna get what they need. I believe that the show is a love letter to oddie bodies and fatty baddies. Do whatever makes you happy. I hope that parents and family members of non-binary and trans people watch the show and just say, “Oh, my God! That’s so funny.” So, it’s normalized. I never saw big girls on TVs that liked or loved herself.
Paste: They are usually the butt of the joke, still way too often to this day.
Buteau: Yes! She’s always so thankful that someone found her attractive behind closed doors. Well, I want to show you what it’s like to actually be in the driver’s seat and like it. Those outside influences still plague you, but what does it look like when we have friends that try to lift us up, not tear us down? There’s a lot of reality show buffoonery and violence. Violence is the new black for the fall season and I ain’t mad at it. Do your thing. But this, much like my comedy special, people keep calling it a “joy watch” or a palate cleanser and that’s my vibe.
Paste: It is the rare series that does not feel like you have to muster up a lot of energy to just hit play. Was that a mandate in making it, that the laughs had to outweigh the darker parts of what Mavis is navigating?
Buteau: You can only find funny when you know what the pain is. This was wildly personal, as opposed to a stand-up special or hosting a barbecue show, because I am pitching stories that have happened to me or people in my life. Very personal, intimate stories but putting a twist on it, so it’s not straight-up the same thing. I’m so sorry! Now my dog is…[Her dog barks.] My dog straight-up went to the beach. He probably brought the coconut in here.
Paste: You just solved a whole mystery in the span of this interview!
Buteau: It feels like a motherfucking panic room in here! I’m putting clues together! I already forgot your question because the dog was the muthafucking culprit!
Paste: Lastly, how did you come to Mavis’ career as a stylist?
Buteau: Being a stylist just felt like the perfect job because it was very parallel with stand-up comedy so that I could wrap my mind around it. You get what you put in. But also, it’s out of your control. At the same time, there’s a hustle and you can be doing something for no money, for, like, Craigslist toothpaste one day. And then the next day, you’re in a loft doing high fashion. And there is definitely fatphobia and homophobia and transphobia within the community that is great, in my opinion, to highlight. In terms of the inclusivity of it all, it was also a great vehicle for that.
Also the fact that Mavis, much like me, has immigrant parents who could not understand why I would want to be telling jokes for free at night on the corner of Times Square. “We sent you to college and you know who your dad is, we did all the things. Why are you doing this?” Same with “I’m a stylist.” It’s like, “People know how to dress themselves, so what are you doing?” Most importantly, this bitch is a stylist because we wanted a budget for the clothes. She loves her curves. She doesn’t mind showing them. Everybody get on board. It’s fine. Trust me, you’ll be okay. When you see some biscuits pop out, you’ll be okay. We’re not promoting obesity. Everybody’s okay. I’m reading comments already.
So, it was very personal and familiar to me because I had to become some sort of low budget stylist / seamstress just to get by in the world. And I still do, quite frankly. I know that I wanted a woman of color to be the head of my wardrobe department. We’re dressing a lot of beautiful brown bodies of all sizes and shapes. And so that was very important to figure out who can wear what and how. What a high booty does compared to a low one. It was very much a collaborative effort, as it always is, because most of the stylists I’ve had, who I love, we’ve had to figure out the journey together. That’s the mantra. That’s the motto. Dress everybody and make them feel seen.
Survival of the Thickest premieres July 13 on Netflix.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen.